Space and Behaviour

The idea of space and man’s behaviour are always connected.

The concept of space varies widely according to the idea that one has of it and that one has of oneself.

The definition of space is that of being and vice versa.

Man is reflected in space and the notion of space shapes him in return. Science, as religion once did, defines him; (mathematics invents him in countless possibilities).

Painting gives space an image; it has found many for it.

Heidegger states: “The modern plastic arts … are understood as a debate with space.” But in fact, has art ever been anything other than this struggle with space?  It is only because a new definition has recently come to light, that the problem seems to be posed with such succinctness.

Yesterday’s spaces seem non-existent to us because only ours seems worthy of the word ‘space’ and full of the meaning that we give to it.  The rest of us, adults, too often forget that the notion of space is acquired like the prose of Monsieur Jourdain.

Often the idea no longer corresponds to living reality: in painting there is a lack of understanding, in architecture disorder in the planning and organisation of cities.[1]

We forget how children approach space with that direct spontaneity that is impossible to preserve.

Childhood is perhaps the only time when we truly live in space; even though obviously it soon becomes this transitional object, produced from the replacement of the illusion more than the image of the real; although reality was utilized as image and as support to the illusion.

Space is both place and revelation at the same time.

It is our continuation while yet being everything that is foreign to us.

Occidentals find it difficult to believe that the better part of humanity doesn’t conceive space like they do.

Apart from primitive, prehistoric or living mankind, which according to so-called civilized countries, play the role of childhood against the adult age, two tendencies oppose each other according to Schweitzer, that of the affirmation of the real, the West, that of the negation of the real, the East.

The West has understood four principal successive images of space:

—The space of antiquity was the natural place where reality affirmed itself in exact volume, divided into light and dark, the pyramids ofEgyptand Greek sculpture, and erected the standing column in man’s image.

—Christian fervour, repressing the senses, reduced the earth to two dimensions. The other dimension is the other world whose unreality of “fundo d’oro” translates the obvious reality.

The cities are vertical, reaching towards the sky with their towers, their arrows and their ogive cathedrals, the hope of faith.

—Humanist man of the Renaissance, once again assuming possession of his body, projects it into space, causes the divine to descend to earth, and places the unknowable at the very end of receding eye lines: this is the invention of the perspective of the Italian painters of the quattrocento. In the distant haze, behind the mysterious cheek, Leonardo placed the ungraspable. Painters, in their rendering of the “bosse ronde,” take possession of reality with the image of the earth that circumvents navigators. Cities spread horizontally.

From Palladian villas to Roman palaces, from Italian gardens to French-style perspectives sight is lead, from tiled terraces across tree-covered walkways, towards the infinity of the cosmos for a humanity which has become solar again and the Great King aids in the setting of his eponymous star.

— But the equilibrium of Humanism is disturbed by Romantic anguish and the Mediterranean rigidity of perspective space fades into the Nordic fogs.

If Ingres is faithful to Raphaël and the classic mind which became academic, in swirling colour Delacroix finds the beginning of another dimension. His burning enthusiasm marks his gesture.

Velasquez, Rembrandt, Hals (the last ones), Michaelangelo (the unfinished ones)… among others, already marked the vibration of their genius despite the imprint of perspective space.

Courbet in his realist matter, the impressionists in the divisionism of light and open-air, advance and discover the new opening.

The analytic and square brush stroke of Cézanne leads to cubism, Mondrian and geometric abstraction.

Monet’s brush, sweeping along time, announces the Fauves, expressionism and lyrical abstraction.

One often sees in cubism and fauvism the break with perspective space.

But the destruction of perspective space is still a long way off.

The essential phenomenon is that of an augmentation of subjectivity bound to lived time even more than to space.

Cubist space (and the cubist expressionism of Picasso) is the juxtaposition of instants whereas expressionist space (and that of lyrical abstraction) is the deformation of the passing of instants. The more one seems to reach the limits of real space, the more one feels the need to put one’s stamp on imaginary space.

Objectivization is only apparent in the Cézannian brush stroke, in pointillism, in cubist space, and now in cold geometry, and even kinetic art.

The freedom taken in regards to the existing form being greater and greater is obviously a form of subjectivity, like the gesture of lyrical abstract painting, which finds objectivity through the transposition of the notion of time. In geometric abstraction and kinetic art, time is physically introduced and subjectivity transposed.

In ardent abstraction, subjectivity is direct and time transposed.

The enthusiasm having subsided which Gide spoke about, essence of art, re-emerges in the work that we are lead to in the traced characteristics is really an image of those forces inherent in matter even where our space continues and mingles.

This is our space. Our epoch, like all others, is therefore defined by its space and its behaviour; for it is the same space which rules in the most abstract painter as well as in the most hyperrealist painter, and the painter who created a work and the one who denies the creation are much closer to one another that they would like to admit and that they are from previous generations.

When all is said and done it is the same question and the same answer which is only another question.

The humanity of the Orient had, in India, defined multiple spaces, leading through nine levels to the supreme Being.

Placing Man at the centre of appearance, daughter of Illusion, like the navel in the middle of the Buddha’s body, the horizontal symmetry, unknown in any Western architecture, is found. In the column, chapiter and base reflect their likenesses, like the top and bottom of mouldings, similar to the hills reflected in the lakes.

It is emptiness that the Far Eastfeels. The calligrapher immerses himself in it, seeking to attain the ungraspable in a gesture which is supposed to be atemporal. The stones of Ryoanji emerge from the sand, like the stars in the sky, the islands in the sea, translate the absent Reality and one sees in Japanese prints the lines of perspective deviate at the point where they meet.[2]

It is perhaps death opening its arms to us, silently, with a smile, you are invited to have tea on the edge of the abyss, without fear, Reality is only apparent.

But the West cannot accept dissolving into the Universe. To the contrary, “the transforming action is that of our very civilisation”… attempting “the annexation of the world by the individual” (cf. Malraux: La Monnaie de L’Absolu pg. 118). The eternal calm of the golden sky became the perpetual ephemeral instant of the traced gesture. The pause separated the place from the moment. Speed extends mingled space and time. Subjectivity increases in Einstein’s relativity.

The further we go to the limits of the Universe, the more we situate the Ungraspable within ourselves.

There is no other sky than that of the Idea. The soul of the divinities ofEgyptcame to live in the granite that the sculptor carved in his image. We ourselves inhabit the inside of form; the artist doesn’t only paint himself, as Malraux said, but he now paints the process of his creation.

His work has often been compared to Far Eastern calligraphy.

Action Painting, the Pacific School, French lyrical painting have gotten so close to Far Eastern effusion as not to return.  Yet, the fusion with the word in the sense where the “AUM” of the Hindus which communicates with the Universal through simple acoustic resonance, is a taking possession of the space which could have been brought closer to the behaviour of the abstract Occidental painter, and equally the Arab kufics, in an act of the Hejira, are a domination of space by the sensuality of the written trait comparable to the actual painting of the Occident.

But it still appears profitable to compare the behaviour of the abstract painter to the Hebrew scribe.  The Phoenicians passed on the same alphabet to the Greeks and to the Hebrews alph… alef beta… bet etc. (cf. Histoire de L’Ecriture par James G. Février pg. 392).

In front of this same written sign, two opposing attitudes, each according to its own genius, the opposition becomes immediately manifest in the sense of writing.

The Greeks after having written from right to left, as they were taught, felt the need which has stayed with us to write from left to right, the direction left-right being that of the act realized in the time of lived life. It is the transposition in the plane of the paper of the gesture of the normally right-handed person from his or her self to the exterior of oneself which, from childhood and even from the foetal period, is that of the defence and conquest of the exterior.

Remaining outside of the letter like we remain outside of it ourselves, while being able to penetrate the idea to the highest degree of abstraction, but not establishing any connection between the meaning of it and its form, the Greek attitude is the definition of the law, the realization of beauty in lived harmony.

Hebrew preserves the right-left direction going into the symbolism of the space-plane (cf. Traité de Graphologie – Crépieux Jamin Ludwig Klages, and Symbolisme Spatial Grünwald-Koch), in the zone of the spectator of life and in the sense of the intemporal toward the emergence outside of the cosmic, rises again inside the very letter, blind to the world, dazzled by the inner light, he pursues the research and definition of the spirit.

This is basically the only abstract position possible and when I am reproached for being in the margins of abstraction, it has always seemed to me that it was like no different for any painters for all art passing through the senses is inevitably less abstract than the attitude of those who are unaware of it!

The form given to the idea is more abstract than the idea born from the refinement of the form (all geometric abstraction is less abstract, contrary to appearance, than subjective fervent abstraction). The transposed space in which the painter moves and the one in which the scribe inscribes his signs is the same. The written line or the painted stroke defines us. The white page is both the image of the Universe and the mirror of our selves. The perceptible places of planar space are “immediate givens of our unconscious.” The simplest givens are general; but Ch. Koch (Le Test de l’Arbre pg. 30) lists a bunch of meanings which agree in more than 80% of treated subjects. They are inherent to humankind in a symbolism determined by our very nature more than by our culture and habits.

Graphologists know the secrets.

It is in these perceptible zones of the plane that the abstract painter investigates the definition of emotion, and his attitude inside of imaginary space is similar to the attitude of the scribe who pursues within the character’s square the very analysis of the mind.

The perceptible analysis of the painter’s emotion is an abstraction identical to the imperceptible analysis of the Idea by the scribe. In order to establish the direct relation of the written mark and the emotion, I have traced a certain number of rhythmic points in the space of the page. In the process of an electro-encephalogram, one could note a concomitance between the marked points and the recording of the inversion of the layout of the galvanic reflex. It moves in the same created plane in search of a definition of mind. This meeting of these two positions diametrically opposed from the beginning, the one which comes from Greece—sublimation of the senses—the other which comes from Israel—incarnation of the idea—is a fundamental characteristic of what is probably the actual époque even more important than the coming together that could be established between the Orient and the Occident, for it better allows, through the definition of Space and behaviour in regards to it, to understand or clarify the stage where we are in the evolution of thought.[3] The definition of the new Space is really the definition of a New Messianism.


Olivier Debré
L’espace et le comportement, L’ Echoppe, 1990



[1]  The Paris of closed, narrow vertical space of the Middle Ages has been replaced, sometimes in a regrettable manner: by the large perspective space of the Renaissance, the noble classic horizontality became the boring bourgeois monotony of the 19th century that we are in the process of destroying without unfortunately being capable of creating the third space, namely ours.

     Rather than seeking to bring an end to the perspective space of a bygone age by closing it contrary to its meaning or annoying it there or elsewhere by cubic verticals often beautiful but sometimes untimely and necessarily too timid, as Le Corbusier already said of a uselessly imitated America, it needed capital, in more satellite cities, a zone in which to freely blossom and create our new space through truly multi-dimensional, informal and lyrical architecture.

[2]  In the divergent Japanese “Zen” perspective, the vanishing point is not located on the horizon line as the humanist perspective of the West requires.  The vanishing point is place below, generally outside of the image and often to the right. In the symbolism of space, this is the zone of shadows, from which the idea of death is felt more or less consciously. The West places it in the zone of symbolic (or real) light: life. The perspective drawn by the Japanese painter is not that which appears to him, but that which a painter would see placed high in the sky right where he bears his gaze. In this way it leads to an unimaginable world or more precisely to that sought-for emptiness.

Conversely, the convergent humanist perspective therefore defines the desired fullness equally—and if one mixes the two (Middle Ages–India: miniatures for example), the opposite effect (or the overly strong exaggeration) necessarily flattens space, and reality becomes light (with preciousness), and not ignorance as is still often believed), the senses are found to be annihilated: spirituality.

[3] This observation on the evolution of forms towards the abstract and the meeting of both these forms of thought can be applied to other attitudes and to the transformation of social and religious myths.